Matt Tait: What if college basketball followed the NBA’s free agency model?
photo by: Nick Krug
Imagine a world in which KU big man Udoka Azubuike left for North Carolina, Devon Dotson jumped ship to Texas and Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston wound up at Villanova for his senior season.
Now imagine that Duke point guard Tre Jones left for Kentucky, Kentucky point guard Ashtan Hagans bolted to Memphis, Baylor big man Tristan Clark landed at Duke and LSU guard Javonte Smart headed for Gonzaga.
What you’ve just read is a small, fictional glimpse at college basketball’s version of what the NBA recently went through during what can only be described as the wildest offseason in league history.
Seventeen of the 24 players who appeared in the NBA All-Star Game as recently as 2017 now have new teams, with many leaving their old clubs via free agency and a handful being traded or forcing their way out.
And while scholarship commitments and transfer rules keep that type of craziness from infiltrating college basketball, the NCAA transfer trend has started to boil over in recent years and has been called by some the college version of free agency.
According to a study conducted by the NCAA, more than 700 transfers made the move to another Division I basketball program before the 2018-19 season. That number has been on a steady climb during each of the past five or six seasons.
Of all the sports offered at four-year, Division I universities, men’s basketball, at 13%, had the fourth-highest transfer rate during the 2016-17 school year, behind women’s beach volleyball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis.
In fact, according to recent NCAA research of its major revenue sports from 2004-17, men’s basketball consistently had the highest transfer activity, with moves in football (FBS and FCS) and baseball either staying steady or dropping, while women’s basketball also increased during that time.
Forget the shoes, the moves, the gear or the music, college basketball players, perhaps subconsciously, appear to be imitating their professional role models with more regularity than ever in leaving one opportunity for the next.
The NCAA today even has in a starring role the famed transfer portal, an online database designed to make the process cleaner, clearer and easier for all.
Although some argue that college athletes should be given complete freedom to transfer and retain eligibility from school to school, year to year, no one should want to see a system that allows that.
Not all, of course, but so many of these transfer-type decisions are rooted in emotion, often made in the heat of the moment after a rough stretch of limited playing time or a bad week at practice.
Too much time goes into the student-athletes’ recruitments, with official and unofficial visits, pros and cons lists, long talks with family members, high school coaches and friends and sometimes as many as three, four or five cuts to one’s list of finalists.
It’s hard to justify one bad week, or even a bad month, overriding decisions that were made from that type of attention to detail.
And that’s why the college game should never allow players to move from team to team as freely as the professional ranks do.
There was a time, not long ago, when the George Bretts, John Elways and Derek Jeters of the world played for and stayed with one team throughout their pro careers. And it was glorious. No Instagram videos of jerseys being burned by bitter fans. No leaving a contender and joining a lesser club just because the price was right. And, most importantly, no need for fans to guard their hearts when picking their favorite players to root for or for their kids to look up to.
That era no longer exists in the pro ranks, but it can and should still be a thing at the college level.
College basketball’s one-and-done rule has thrown a wrench into those plans, with players like Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre, Josh Jackson and others barely getting to say hello to the adoring Kansas fan base before moving on.
But with the NBA expected to get rid of the one-and-done rule in the near future, therein allowing players to skip college altogether, the future of college basketball programs, even at powerhouse programs like Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, once again will be built on multi-year players.
As intrigued as I am about the upcoming NBA season — which should be absolutely nuts, by the way — I’ll take that type of continuity over watching a player under contract for four years and $200 million move from team to team with such ease.